Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, iv


       As Servi entered the spacious foyer of the Grillo Villa, suddenly he was back in Oyster Bay.  Or more precisely, he was in the transplanted memory of Brooklyn which was uprooted to Long Island, and here, reassembled in Tuscany:  leopard skin print upholstery on the sofa, encased in plastic; pink tinted lamps molded in a facsimile of the Rocco style; hazy landscapes of Venice and Rome in ornate gilt frames; wall sized mirrors with floral borders; mints in fancy, over-sized decorative bowls.  Every gesture was a homage to a lost past.  When Servi saw the room, and the others, he realized that Grillo was in exile, and his exile was not voluntary.   He had so quickly fled America that he had reproduced it here in Italy.

            The servant who led Servi into the living room asked if he wanted a drink.  Servi declined, and was asked to kindly take a seat.  Servi sat, but only for a moment.  There was something along the walls he hardly saw at all in home’s such as these on Long Island, a towering shelf of books.  The only books which Servi saw as a child were those sets ordered from magazines or TV: The Great Books, seldom read, hand tooled leather editions of Plato’s Symposium or Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, molding away in basements or dens.   
           But Frank Grillo’s volumes were obviously read.  Binding were broken; there were copious notes in English and Italian in margins and fly pages.  The collection was almost entirely of Italian literature, from the “Sicilian” school of troubadour poets of the eleventh century, to a number of editions of Dante’s works, La Vita Nova, the Divine Comedy, most of the volumes quite old, down to the modern classics of Italian literature by Manzoni, Lampedusa, and Svevo.   Also well represented were books on the Mafia, in both Italian and English, from historical works to biography to government reports and transcripts of famous mafia “super trials.”  Apparently, Frank Grillo had really read books beneath a cypress tree during his long retirement.

            Then Servi heard a distant door open: strains of Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea with its subdued early sixties version of vinyl cool wafted on the air conditioned breeze.  And just as quickly, as the muffled, shrouded horns caressed Servi’s ears, a large, round man was in front of him.   
            He was certainly overweight, and his round, florid face had the pre-coronary mien of a man whose heart was working overtime to pump blood through thick girth.  Yet he held the mass well.  It was packed high and tight into a  tweed sport coat, the kind wore by the Tuscan farming elite, usually with a pea cap and knee high rubber boots for plodding through muddy orchards and vineyards. 

            “Aaron Servi?” the man asked in a considerable New York accent, and when Servi said yes, the man grasped his hand warmly.  “You don’t recognize me?  I do you!  You have the same face as when you were a boy, even with that bushy beard.  Jesus Christ!  I’m Frank Grillo.”  Servi saw nothing of the old family friend in the block of flesh standing before him.  That slim, gray haired man of eleven years ago with the long, Roman nose and crisp good looks had been replaced with a puffy replica.

            “Mr. Grillo, its nice to see you again.”

            “Please, Aaron, Frank,” Grillo answered, waving a dismissive hand.  “We are both men now.  Come on, have a drink with me on the veranda.”

            Servi followed Grillo out a set of double doors, into the overarching heat of the Tuscan summer, and onto a red tiled veranda studded with potted bougainvilleas.  On a table was a bottle of red wine already half finished and a book turned over on its face.  Bobby Darin floated outside through an open window.  Servi sat across from Grillo and Grillo rang a little bell and asked a servant for a second glass.  It shortly arrived and Grillo poured Servi a healthy dose of red wine and pushed the glass toward him.

            “Drink!  I make this myself, you know.  To old friends who are family!” Grillo raised his glass to Servi’s and they clinked.   
              Both men drank in dignified silence.  In the distance, Servi could hear gurgling water from a fountain.  A thin cloud moved across the sun, covering it like a cataract.  In the lush and fragrant surroundings, Servi became acutely aware of the smell of his body.  Grillo did not appear to mind.  He closed his eyes and drank the wine and issued a long, low moan from deep within his throat, like some primitive guttural cry of elation. 

            “Jesus, Mary and Joseph Aaron, this is the life!”  He placed the glass down like a gavel and leaned forward, his eyes gleaming.  “I should have come out here when I was a young man, before college, and certainly before law school.  I should have come here to Tuscany and picked grapes and slept in haylofts. What the hell, right?  If we knew what trials awaited us later in life, when we were young we wouldn’t give a God damned about the future.   
           "But I went to school instead.  I had little choice.  My father wanted it that way, and years ago, no one dared to tell their father no.  It isn’t like now, no judgment intended.  Times change.  What can you do about it?  As you get older, you worry less and less about these things,” Grillo stopped to take a considerable gulp of wine.  His eyes shown bright for a moment, and then dimmed as he took a fresh look at Servi.

            “If I had told my father I wanted to go to Italy, he would have had me committed.  You know, generally, folks from the old country who came to America hated Italy.  Did you know that Aaron?”

            “No,” Servi answered, taking took a sip of wine and squinting at Grillo in the flat light.  “I didn’t.  I always imaged they would have just as soon stayed if they could.”

            “No way,” Grillo exhaled, and seeing his glass was near empty, filled it once more. “Just the contrary.  For them, it was a dead end.  Poverty, corruption, no opportunities for anything better; they had a certain contempt for those that stayed behind; thought them lazy and unmotivated.  When I was a boy, I started to write a cousin in Calabria, and my mother was  suspicious.  She told me he would eventually ask for money.”

            “Did he?” Servi asked, and Grillo laughed lightly.

            “No,” he said, smiling.  “He knew better than to do that!”  Servi smiled, saying nothing.  He still had the caution of his ancestors: he would mind his own business.

            “So you see, Aaron,” Grillo continued. “I’ve always been interested in Italy.  The language, the cuisine, the history.  As you know, I have had contact with your father and mother over the years.  Especially since my wife died…”

            “I’m sorry Mr. Grillo, I had no idea,” Servi said, and on hearing this, Grillo frowned.

            “Please, call me Frank,” he said, raising a palm upward.  “So, to make a long story short, your mother contacted me to talk to you about your stay  in Italy.  Well, when I heard the story, I thought, I’m the wrong man for the job.  Like I said, I wish I had come out here at your age.  I probably would have never left.  The life suits me fine.  But then I heard that your mother was sick and that changed everything.  Then I said I would help.  I said Italians love their land, but they love their mothers more.  So I said that I would help .  So, are you intent on remaining in Italy even with your mother sick?”  Servi listened carefully at the opening and decided it was a moment for firmness.

            “I have my reasons for staying, Frank.”

            “I don’t doubt it son,” Grillo said in evident sympathy.  “As I said, I can completely understand wanting to stay here for a good long time.  I wouldn’t leave for all the tea in china.  I don’t intend to put pressure on you Aaron.  I am doing this as a favor to your mother, a dear old friend.  I’ll only ask one question and that is that: do you plan, in the near future, on going back to America?”

            “I do plan on it, yes Sir,” Servi answered.  He had uttered a technical truth.  He would one day return.  But in his heart, Servi realized that it was a literal lie.  At this moment, he would only be forced to returned to New York if he was bound and gagged like Adolph Eichmann .   At the thought of that image, a chill ran down Servi’s spine, despite the heat.  Was Grillo a man who could accomplish such a feat?

            At Servi’s words, Grillo appeared to relax.  To Servi, he looked relieved at what had been said.  Servi had expected a struggle from this powerful man, and instead, Grillo appeared cowed by the task entrusted to him.

            “That’s very good to hear, Aaron,” he said after a few moments, after he had downed yet another glass of wine.  “At least I have something to tell your poor sick mother.  A sick mother, a sick wife, it’s a thing…” Grillo became snared on the words.  Servi thought he was about to cry.  But Grillo recovered and rang the little bell again.  The servant quickly arrived.

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